"Taiwan cannot allow its vital security interests to be held hostage to domestic partisan politics. We will be watching closely and judge those who act responsibly and those who play politics." So said Stephen Young, the top U.S. official in Taiwan, last Thursday in an effort to intimidate lawmakers there into passing a "robust defense budget" in its current session and purchase billions of dollars of arms from the United States.
There is another word for "domestic partisan politics": democracy. For an administration that has spent untold hours of official rhetoric singing the praises of freedom and democracy, this ham-handed effort by the Bush Administration's "man in Taipei" to interfere in Taiwan's internal politics is nothing short of stunning.
At issue is a multi-billion arms package from the United States to Taiwan that was approved by President George W. Bush in 2001, but has since been voted down over 60 times by the Taiwanese Parliament. It's not at all clear that Taipei needs the package, which includes eight submarines, Patriot missiles and P-3 anti-submarine aircraft. Most experts on the region agree that China does not have the missiles, aircraft or naval mobility to mount a successful attack on Taiwan at this point. For example, Taipei's Air Force, built upon French Mirage and U.S. F-16 fighters, is far superior to China's, which relies primarily on knock-offs of prior-generation Soviet weaponry, combined with some newer Russian models.
Nor is China in the midst of a major buildup that would require Taiwan to keep up. According to the latest version of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance: "Since the early 1980s China's defence sector has been in serious decline owing to the steady fall in procurement orders." The book further points out that over that same time period, 70 percent of China's military factories have been converted to civilian use.
There may come a time when China launches a major military buildup, but it has not happened yet. And it should be up to the Taiwanese people, speaking through their elected representatives, to decide how much the country needs to spend on defense, not to U.S. officials making veiled threats.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this episode is that U.S. leverage over Taipei is limited. Taiwan is not a recipient of U.S. military aid, and would thus need to pay for any arms deal out of its own funds. It has a vibrant economy, with active trade and investment interests throughout its region, including in China. It is extremely unlikely that Washington would cut off trade relations or withdraw its implicit security guarantee to Taipei over an effort to get it to buy more U.S. armaments. This is particularly true at a time when it is trying to get other nations to reduce their investments in nuclear weapons. While submarines and Patriot missiles lack the strategic clout and security dangers posed by nuclear weapons, any U.S. effort to force a democratic nation to buy more weapons than it wants would be viewed as an exercise in hypocrisy in most global capitals. It could also needlessly hamper U.S. initiatives to curb Iran and North Korea's nuclear activities.
So which is it, pushing democracy or pushing arms? The Taiwanese case bears watching, as it may provide at least a partial answer to this question.
William D. Hartung is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School.